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Photobiomodulation for Depression

Colin Cook

It’s easy to toss around “depression” as an everyday concern, but to the medical community, depression means something very serious. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 20 Americans suffers from depression, and it’s not always something you can just snap out of. In the words of WebMD: “Depression is an extremely complex disease. No one knows exactly what causes it, but it can occur for a variety of reasons. Some people experience depression during a serious medical illness. Others may have depression with life changes such as a move or the death of a loved one. Still others have a family history of depression. Those who do may experience depression and feel overwhelmed with sadness and loneliness for no known reason.”

Treating an illness that is so complex can be difficult. The American Psychological Association says the most effective approach, on average, is antidepressant medications combined with talk therapy. Antidepressant medications seem to work for about half the people who take them, and they take about six weeks to kick in. They can also involve unpleasant side effects. Talk therapy can be expensive and time-consuming. It’s no wonder there is so much research happening on photobiomodulation (PBM) and depression.

A 2009 study published in Behavioral and Brain Functions tested with substantial success a form of PBM against major depression and anxiety. The most interesting thing about that study to my mind was that the reduction in depression was strongest two weeks after the treatment took place, which is far more rapid than either medication or talk therapy. Another 2018 review in Journal of Affective Disorders also found significant results.

In addition, a 2016 survey article in Mental Health Daily attempted to explain how transcranial PBM was able to reduce the symptoms of depression, postulating that it increases the cellular production of ATP and activates the cytochrome oxidase enzyme. The article (which calls PBM by its former name: LLLT) concluded, “At this juncture, it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific mechanism by which transcranial photobiomodulation improves mood. It is likely that a combination of the aforestated mechanisms facilitate mood enhancement. The increased ATP generation, enhancement of mitochondrial membrane potential (MMP), increased oxygenation and/or blood flow (to the dorsolateral PFC), generation of neurotrophic factors, plus reduced neuroinflammation may play the biggest roles in facilitation of LLLT’s antidepressant response.”

The future of PBM in the treatment of depression looks bright, if you will excuse the pun. But here’s a caveat. This research is not based on the most common type of PBM. Most of the studies are based on transcranial PBM. This procedure involves a helmet rigged with LEDs and sometimes a fiber optic nasal probe. I found one 2017 review that “postulated” the effects of “systemic photobiomodulation” for depression, but it is clear that few clinical researchers are using PBM beds. That’s not to say the PBM bed we use here at Peak Recovery & Health Center is useless for fighting depression. Many of our PBM users report mood elevation as a result of their sessions. And if PBM increases ATP when it is administered transcranially, there’s no reason to suppose it won’t create the same increase when administered systemically, which is what happens when you lie in the PBM bed.

One thing I know for sure. The risks of discovering whether PBM can help your depression are very, very low. PBM has a much lower risk of side effects than antidepressant medications, and it is less likely to complicate your life than talk therapy. It only takes 12 minutes for a session. Book some today.

Image: “Man Lonely in Park” from Pixabay. Creative Commons CC0.